Archive for June, 2014

Practicing Patience

Patience 1The other day, I drove down to the Social Security office to apply to get a Social Security card for my daughter, Hope.  Because she is adopted, she did not get one issued to her at the hospital.  While I was on my way to visit my local friendly government agency, the skies opened up, thunder clapped, and rain poured down, slowing traffic to a crawl.

Now, usually, I hate being stuck in traffic.  I’m always looking for a way to weave in and out of traffic and find that elusive lane that is going 40 miles per hour faster than all the other lanes.  But not so on this day.  It was raining so hard that, quite frankly, I was glad traffic was moving at a snail’s pace.  I’d rather slosh down the road slowly and arrive safely at my destination than try to gun it and wind up in a wreck.

As I sat there contentedly in a sea of brake lights, my thoughts were drawn to the virtue of patience.  After all, for once in my life, I actually felt patient.  Here is what I realized in my moments spent reflecting: the virtue of patience leads to other virtues.  It is what I call a “funnel virtue.”  That is, if you practice patience, it will funnel you in to other important virtues.

For instance, take the virtue of responsibility.  At the end of the day, my wife directs Hope to clean up her toys.  But directing a one-year-old to clean up toys is never an easy – or a quick – task.  Hope will drop a toy in her toy basket only to immediately pull it out again.  But Melody knows it’s important to teach Hope responsibility.  But to teach the virtue responsibility, Melody first needs to exercise the virtue of patience (which she does marvelously, by the way).  Patience funnels into responsibility.

Or how about the virtue of joy?  The disease of road rage is well documented.  Drivers lose their minds because they feel the person in front of them is going too slow.  But what would happen if they were patient?  Perhaps they would rediscover the joy of a Sunday drive – motoring down the road more to take in the sights rater than to reach a destination.  Patience could funnel into joy.

Then, of course, there is the virtue of love.  There is perhaps no better expression of love than patience.  This is why the very first virtue that Paul uses to describe love in 1 Corinthians 13:4 is, “Love is patient.”  To be patient with someone teaches you to love someone because it forces you to put someone else’s pace and schedule above of and in front of your own.

Finally, patience also can serve as a funnel to fuller faith.  Right now, we are in the process of buying a new home.  I cannot tell you how many times I have prayed to God for an answer about something pertaining to this process…right now!  God is answering my requests in some pretty miraculous ways, just not according to my schedule.  And I am having to remember and re-learn that God really does have this all under control and I can trust Him to work things out.  But here’s the key:  the longer I have to wait on Him, the more I learn to trust Him.  Patience funnels into faith.

As it turns out, when I got to the Social Security office, I was not able to get a card for Hope.  The documentation requirements that I read in the Social Security brochure did not match the documentation requirements they had at the Social Security office.  I left empty handed with an errand list of other government agencies I had to visit to get the required documents.  I had wasted my time.  And I found I was not nearly as patient on the way back from the Social Security office as I was on the way to the Social Security office.

Perhaps my patience funnel still has room to expand.

June 30, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Four Lessons From The Spurs You Probably Already Know

Credit:  Getty Images

Credit: Getty Images

This past week was a great one to be living in San Antonio.  For the fifth time in franchise history, the San Antonio Spurs brought home the title of NBA National Champions.  As much as I enjoyed watching Game 5 of the National Championship and seeing the Spurs come back from a 16-point deficit to win 104 to 87, the Spurs have a lot more going for them than just one big win in one big game.  Their words and demeanor season after season offer some good, even if simple, lessons.  Here are four that I’ve been thinking about.

A Lesson in Teamwork

The Spurs, as sportscasters, fans, and bystanders alike will tell you, are a team.  But not just in the sense that they all happen to be wearing the same jersey.  No, they play like a team.  They act like a team.  And they win like a team.  Benjamin Morris noted that the Spurs “had nine different players take four or more field goal attempts per game throughout the playoffs, compared to just six for Miami.”[1]  In San Antonio, everybody gets to play because, in San Antonio, everybody needs to play to bring home a win.

Playing as a team, of course, is needed not only on the court, but in the Christian life.  To meet the challenges we face, everybody needs to play together.  I think of the apostle Paul and all of his teammates, or, as he called them, “partners” (e.g., 2 Corinthians 8:23; Philippians 1:5; Philemon 1:7), in the gospel.  With whom do you need to team up so you can share and show God’s love more effectively?

A Lesson in Humility

When Kawhi Leonard was named Most Valuable Player for the Finals, his shock was apparent – and endearing.  I loved how he responded to his high honor:  “Right now, it’s just surreal to me,” he said. “I have a great group of guys behind me.”[2]  Kawhi knew he performed great in Game 5.  But he also knew it wasn’t just about him.  It was about them – all the Spurs behind him.

In a world where Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are full of people shouting, “Look at me!” – to have a man point to the men behind him is impressive and important.  This is true humility.  Indeed, true humility is not about degrading yourself, but about lifting others up, which Leonard did beautifully.  Who can you point to in humility?

A Lesson in Perseverance

Before they were the National Champion San Antonio Spurs of 2014, they were the team that let everything slip through their fingers in 2013.  The front page of the San Antonio Express-News reflected last year’s heartbreak in its headline:  “REDEMPTION!”  But it took 362 days after a heartbreaking Game 6 loss to get that redemption.  362 long days.  “A day didn’t go by when I didn’t think about Game 6,” said Coach Gregg Popovich. “For the group to have the fortitude to get back to this spot speaks volumes.”[3]  The Spurs took a fall, yes, but they turned that fall into fuel for fortitude.  In the words of Tim Duncan, “What happened last year definitely helped our drive … We could have reacted in different ways.  We reacted the right way.”

Where you in your life do you need to persevere?  Where do you need to take things that go wrong and learn from them so you can do right?

A Lesson in Inclusion

Scott Cacciola of The New York Times recently published an article hailing the Spurs as “The United Nations of the Hardwood”:

The Spurs, as has been well established, have developed an international flair under Coach Gregg Popovich.  Eight players on the current roster were born outside the United States.  Loosely translated, that means the Spurs use at least four languages – English, Spanish, French and Italian – to communicate among themselves.

Manu Ginobili, an Argentine, is the team’s one-man version of the United Nations, capable of conversing in Spanish with his Brazilian teammate Tiago Splitter and in Italian with Marco Belinelli, who was born outside Bologna.  (Ginobili speaks in English with everybody else.)

Boris Diaw, who is from France, converses en français with Tony Parker, who was born in Belgium but grew up in France.  Both players also know some Italian, enough to eavesdrop on conversations between Ginobili and Belinelli.

Even the two team’s two Australians, Patty Mills and Aron Baynes, have their own dialect.

“We’ll hear them and be like, ‘Whoa!’” the assistant coach Chad Forcier said.

Tim Duncan, who is from the United States Virgin Islands, is considered an international player by the NBA.[4]

During the championship ceremony, many of these players wrapped themselves in the flags of their home countries.

The inclusion of so many men from so many places, all together on one team, makes me smile.  It reminds me of the promise that anyone from any “nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9) can be included as one redeemed by the Lamb through faith.  And the more, the merrier.  That’s why one of my prayers is that heaven is chocked full.  I’d hate to see one empty corner where a person could have been.  So would the Lord.  He wants as many people included in His Kingdom as possible.  Who can you pray for to be included in eternity’s celebration?

In reality, these lessons are pretty simple and straightforward.  Indeed, I suspect you have probably already learned these lessons somewhere along the way.  Nothing in this blog is probably news to you.  But lessons don’t have to be esoteric and unknown to be profound and helpful.  They just have to be true.  And these lessons most certainly are.  That’s why I thought we could all use a little reminder.

So congratulations, Spurs.  And thanks for the lessons.  They’re great.

________________________________

[1] Benjamin Morris, “The Spurs Were an Outlier of Unselfishness,” FiveThirtyEight (6.17.2014).

[2] Associated Press, “Kawhi Leonard named Finals MVP,” ESPN (6.16.2014).

[3] Jeff McDonald, “High five! Spurs dethrone Heat for fifth NBA championship,” San Antonio Express-News (6.15.2014)

[4] Scott Cacciola, “The United Nations of the Hardwood,” The New York Times (6.15.2014).

June 23, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Why I Don’t Read The Bible Literally (But I Do Take It Seriously)

Bible in PewIt never ceases to amaze me how misunderstood the orthodox Christian belief concerning Holy Scripture is.  Even The New York Times can’t seem to figure it out.  Take Charles Blow, an op-ed columnist for the Times, who stands stunned at the views of many Americans on the Bible.  With a mixture of disbelief and disdain, he reports:

One Gallup report issued last week found that 42 percent of Americans believe “God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago.”

Even among people who said that they were “very familiar” with the theory of evolution, a third still believed that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago.

It’s not clear what the respondents meant by being “very familiar” – did they fully understand the science upon which evolution’s based, or was their understanding something short of that, as in, very familiar with it as being antithetical to creationist concepts?

Whatever the case, on this issue as well as many others in America, the truth is not the light.[1]

Blow goes on to cite people’s opinions on the Bible itself according to this same Gallup pole:

Nearly a third of Americans continue to believe that the Bible “is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.”

Furthermore, nearly half believe that it is “the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally.”

About a fifth of Americans said they believe the Bible is “an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man.”

The questions Gallup asks concerning the nature and character of the Bible frustrate me.  Gallup wants to know, “Do you believe the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word?”  Personally, I would have to answer “yes” and “no.”  Do I believe the Bible is “the actual word of God”?  Yes.  Do I believe it is to be “taken literally, word for word”?  No.  But this is not because I want to discredit the Bible’s veracity, authority, or inerrancy.  Rather, this is because I follow the Bible’s lead when it interprets itself non-literally in some places.  The Bible is full of metaphors, symbols, and other figures of speech as even an elementary reading of it will uncover. One need look no farther than “The LORD is my shepherd” (Psalm 23) to find a metaphor – and a beautiful metaphor, I would add – of Scripture.  Thus, I would find myself more at ease with Gallup’s second position:  “The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally.”

Blow, however, summarily dismisses this second position:

I am curious which parts would get a pass from most of these respondents and which wouldn’t. Would the origins of the world fall into the literal camp? What about the rules – all or some – in books like Deuteronomy?

Perhaps Blow has not yet discovered the difference between reading something literally and reading something contextually.  Just because I don’t practice, for instance, the sacrifices outlined in Deuteronomy doesn’t mean I don’t understand them literally.  It just means that I read them in light of Hebrews 10:10:  “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”  Christ’s sacrifice for sin put an end to all those Old Testament sacrifices for sin.  For me to try to follow those laws would be like me taking a ticket for an Elvis concert, going to the venue listed thereon, and expecting a concert usher to let me in!  Though I may read the ticket “literally,” that ticket’s time is past.  So it is with the Old Testament sacrificial system.  Its time too is past because it has been fulfilled by Christ.  But that isn’t me reading the Bible non-literally.  That’s just me reading the Bible contextually.

I suspect part of the reason Blow disparages option two when it comes to reading and interpreting the Bible is because, for him, only option three, which says the Bible is “an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man,” is viable.  He writes:

I don’t seek to deny anyone the right to believe as he or she chooses. I have at points in my own life been quite religious, and my own children have complicated views about religion. As my oldest son once told me, “I’d hate to live in a world where a God couldn’t exist.”

That is his choice, as it is every individual’s choice, and I respect it.

What worries me is that some Americans seem to live in a world where facts can’t exist.

Facts such as the idea that the world is ancient, and that all living things evolved and some – like dinosaurs – became extinct. Facts like the proven warming of the world. Facts like the very real possibility that such warming could cause a catastrophic sea-level rise.

Ah yes, facts.  Facts like the Bohr model of the atom or the rallying cry of biogenetics: “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”  Oh, wait.  Those “facts” turned out to be not quite as factual as we once thought.  Contrary to Blow, I’m not so sure that a great uprising of people who want facts to not exist is the problem.  The problem is there are people who disagree with him on what the fullness of the facts are and how the data that form the facts should be interpreted.  Now, I’m not saying these other people are correct on the facts.  I’m just saying these other people with other thoughts on what the facts are that contradict Blow’s thoughts on what the facts are not necessarily rejecting facts themselves.

Blow says he is “both shocked and fascinated by Americans’ religious literalism.”  I don’t think he even understands what “religious literalism” is.  Nor do I think he understands that many serious people of faith understand and trust the Bible theologically, morally, and historically without always reading it literally.  No wonder he’s so shocked and fascinated.  He simply doesn’t understand.  Then again, I’m not so sure he wants to.

__________________________

[1] Charles Blow, “Religious Constriction,” The New York Times (6.8.2014).

June 16, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment

A Deal With The Devil: How We Got Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl

Credit:  Getty Images

Credit: Getty Images

One of my favorite movie lines comes at the end of “The American President.”  After being excoriated by his opponent, Senator Bob Rumson, President Andrew Shepherd storms into the Press Briefing Room to deliver an apologetic for his presidency and his personal life with the cameras rolling.  One of the things he says in this press conference that has long stuck with me is, “America isn’t easy.”

I couldn’t agree more.  In twenty-first century America, we face tough challenges.  We have to navigate complex issues.  America isn’t easy.

The latest example of this truism comes to us courtesy the case of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.  He was captured by the Taliban in 2009.  On May 31 of this year, he was released.  If this was all there was to this story, this would be a story of unambiguous triumph and joy.  But the devil, as they say, is in the details.  And the details here are sketchy, conflicting, and disturbing.

First, there is the detail of how Sergeant Bergdahl was captured.  He claims it’s because he fell behind on a patrol and the Taliban swept in and abducted him.  The Taliban claims he was captured drunk and wandering off base.  According to an investigation by the Pentagon, Bergdahl may have deserted his unit – walking away from his post, which led to his capture.  In an email dated June 27, 2009, Bergdahl expressed a rising dissatisfaction with his military service:  “I am ashamed to be an american.  And the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools.”[1]  If Sergeant Bergdahl’s claims concerning his capture are true, this is a tragedy.  If the Taliban’s claims are true, Bergdahl was foolish.  But if the Pentagon’s story pans out, this is a story of one man’s faithlessness toward his brothers-in-arms.  How all this began matters.

Then, there is the detail of what Sergeant Bergdahl’s release cost.  Our government brokered a deal with the Taliban that released five Guantanamo Bay detainees in exchange for Bergdahl’s freedom.  Before this deal, no fewer than five soldiers died on missions to rescue Bergdahl – all this for a man who may have despised many of the very people who were trying to rescue him.  What Sergeant Bergdahl’s release cost matters.

So, what is the appropriate response to this sordid affair?  At this point, I think it’s best to say there is no appropriate response – not because there is no appropriate response period, but because we do not have enough facts to formulate the kind of comprehensive response that this story demands and deserves.  Thus, I am not so interested in deconstructing the details of this story itself, but I do want to address some of the ethical questions it raises.  People want to know:  “Was it right to sacrifice five lives and release five criminals for the freedom of a man who could have been a deserter?”  “What price should we be willing to pay for the civic freedom of one person?”  And, of course, “Is it ever right for the U.S. to negotiate with terrorists?”

In one sense, the saga of Sergeant Bergdahl is parabolic for the limits of human ethical decisions.  Here, we have both good and bad comingled.  Freeing a Prisoner of War – that’s good.  Sacrificing the lives of at least five soldiers and releasing five hardened criminals – that’s bad.  We did something bad to get something good.  How do you reconcile that?

Such ethical angst is perhaps best encapsulated by Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, in an interview with USA Today.  Commenting on our government’s deal with the Taliban, he notes that though the United States’ official stance is that we do not negotiate with terrorists, this is

…repeated as mantra more than fact.  We have long negotiated with terrorists. Virtually every other country in the world has negotiated with terrorists despite pledges never to … We should be tough on terrorists, but not on our fellow countrymen who are their captives, which means having to make a deal with the devil when there is no alternative.[2]

Hoffman is right.  We made a deal with the devil.  And granted, out of this deal, some good has come:  a soldier has been reunited with with his family.  But whether or not any other good comes out of this deal remains to be seen.  Questions concerning Bergdahl’s conduct still need to be asked and families who have lost loved ones in attempts to rescue this soldier still need to be comforted.  This much I do know, however:  deals with the devil are never as good as we think they are.  There are always hidden costs and huge catches.  In fact, as far as I can tell, only one deal with the devil has ever been truly successful.  It’s the one where someone said:  “Let’s make a deal.  You can strike My heel.  But I get to crush your head.

May that divine deal help us navigate the moral complexities and save us from the moral compromises of our fallen deals.

___________________________

[1] Michael Hastings, “America’s Last Prisoner of War,” Rolling Stone (6.7.2012).

[2] Alan Gomez, “Is it ever right to negotiate with terrorists?USA Today (6.2.2014).

June 9, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Wisdom That’s Not So Wise

Credit:  wired.com

Credit: wired.com

It was G.K. Chesterton who said, “It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.”[1]  There just seems to be something about one’s own age the dupes those living in it into thinking they are living in the best age – they are living at the pinnacle of human achievement, intelligence, and insight, unsurpassed by anything that has come before it, or, for that matter, anything that will come after it.

Case in point:  Albert Schweitzer, in his seminal work The Quest of the Historical Jesus, opens by touting his credentials:

When, at some future day, our period of civilization shall lie, closed and completed, before the eyes of later generations, German theology will stand out as great, a unique phenomenon in the mental and spiritual life of our time.  For nowhere save in the German temperament can there be found in the same perfection the living complex of conditions and factors – of philosophic though, critical acumen, historical insight, and religious feeling – without which no deep philosophy is possible.[2]

At least Schweitzer doesn’t have a confidence problem.

The ironic thing about Schweitzer’s opening paragraph is that on the back of this very book is this review:  “Schweitzer’s … proposals no longer command endorsement.”  In other words, Schweitzer, who thought his age was so wise that the people, and specifically the Germans, in it could in no way be mistaken, were, in fact, mistaken.  Perhaps his German pedigree wasn’t as intellectually impenetrable as he thought it was.

Whether or not we are as unabashedly arrogant as Schweitzer, we all, to one extent or another, use our age as the measuring rod for all ages.  We project the sensibilities of our age back onto the past and even forward into the future.

Greg Miller of Wired Science recently published a pithy little post, “Here’s How People 100 Years Ago Thought We’d Be Living Today.”[3]  Ed Fries, the former vice president of game publishing at Microsoft, shared with Miller a fascinating cache of vintage European postcards that offer a glimpse of how the people of yesteryear thought we would be living in our years.  For instance, there is one postcard featuring a prop plane with a spotlight and luggage attached to the top of the cabin ushering a group of tourists to the moon for “just another weekend trip.”  The year, according to the postcard, is 2012.  Are any rockets needed?  No.  And the people on the aircraft seem to be blissfully unconcerned with the fact that their cabin is not pressurized.  Another postcard features a videophone, projecting its picture onto a wall, just like the movies of the early 1900’s did.  Apparently, those at the turn of the 20th century simply could not envision the hand-held screens we enjoy today.  Perhaps most comically, the people in all of these postcards are decked out in their early 1900’s wears.  As Miller wryly notes, though everything else underwent radical evolutions, “fashion stayed frozen in time.”

For all the fanciful things these postcards envision, they are embarrassingly transparent products of their time.  No one would mistake these as accurate or modern depictions of our age.  The people of the early 1900’s, it seems, were stuck in the early 1900’s.

We would do well to remember that just like the people of the early 1900’s were stuck in the early 1900’s, the people of the early 2000’s are, well, stuck in the early 2000’s.  We too are products of our time.  Not that this is all bad.  Our age has much too offer.  But our age cannot lead us to disparage other ages – especially past ages.  For the wisdom of the past that we discount as foolishness in the present may just be the wisdom of our present that will be discounted as foolishness in the future.  In other words, we should take the wisdom of our age with a grain of salt.

One of the wonderful things about Scripture is that it self-consciously bucks the human tendency to jump on the bandwagon of whatever zeitgeist happens to be popular at any given moment.  Indeed, it sees past learning as key to present wisdom.    As the apostle Paul says, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).  This is why, according to one count, the Old Testament is cited in the New Testament some 263 times.[4]  Wisdom, according to Scripture, cannot be confined to just one age.  It needs many ages.

When you look at your present, then, don’t assume that your day is the greatest day and your generation the greatest generation.  Or, to use the words of Moses, “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past” (Deuteronomy 32:7).  Wisdom is not just when you are.  It was before you.  And it will continue after you.  Wise, therefore, is the person whose memory and vision is long.

______________________

[1] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1908).

[2] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Mineola:  Dover Publications, Inc., 1911), 1.

[3] Greg Miller, “Here’s How People 100 Years Ago Thought We’d Be Living Today,” wired.com (5.28.2014).

[4]New Testament Citations of the Old Testament,” crossway.org (3.17.2006).

June 2, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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